Football has always been a game built on the grassroots and, on a day when a handful of highly-paid Premiership players headed by Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand postured over racism, it was refreshing to witness non-league Sutton United remind us what is good about the game.
Yesterday all English matches were marked by an anti-racism message orchestrated by the campaign group Kick It Out, but the Blue Square Conference South side went further. They promoted Sutton Black History Month, who had a stall next to the main stand, and made several tannoy announcements about it. Kick It Out badges were handed to every supporter going through the turnstyles, the match-day programme included a celebration of past Black club players and there was a photocall with banners involving the whole team and the visitors, Staines Town, who are managed by the former Wimbledon midfielder Marcus Gayle.
The likes of Ferdinand may have stolen today’s headlines with a crunching late tackle on the Kick It Out group, but down here at the grassroots I was reminded just how valuable such campaigns are. Sutton United has always been a genuine community club with deep roots in the borough and in my many visits I’ve hardly heard a swear word let alone any racist abuse. Yet there is no complacency. Speaking to the directors, as a guest of the club, it was clear they were not merely going through the motions but were deeply engaged with the issues. Sutton is a reminder of all that is good about football; people volunteering for the love of football and the community not wealth and hedonism.
What a far cry from the scenes in the spoilt and arrogant Premier League yesterday when several black players refused to wear Kick It Out t-shirts in a move that threatens to deeply damage the campaign and sparked a media firestorm. We all want to go further to drive racism out of the game but I have little sympathy for the tactics of Rio Ferdinand and others for three simple reasons.
First, they were picking on the wrong target. Any criticism about light punishments for racism – for example in the cases of John Terry or Luis Suarez – must go first and foremost to the football authorities and then to Premiership clubs themselves. Kick It Out are merely a pressure group without power, and one that has consistently been calling for tougher penalties for many a year.
Second, it is a measure of how far we have come – largely a credit to Kick It Out – that we now have such an anti-racist climate in the sport. Terry may have deserved a tougher punishment but he has been widely condemned for his actions, and both he and Suarez have a massive stain on their characters. Terry was fined by the Football Association and, eventually, by Chelsea. He abandoned England just ahead of the FA banning him from the national team and regardless of the actual fines the case has sent a strong message to everyone involved in the game that racist language is completely unacceptable.
And third, the disgraceful scenes of racism we saw in Serbia against England’s U-21 black players – and in the Ukraine during the Euro Championships – were exactly the kind of sickening abuse that used to plague British grounds before the fight against racism led by Kick It Out. It is a measure of how far we have come that such incidents are now pretty much non-existent in English grounds now. The handful of Millwall fans who racially abused a black player on the touchline recently was a rare occurrence and a reminder that we must never let our guard down. However the climate in football in this country has changed out of all recognition since the 1970s and 80s, and credit must go to anti-racist campaigners who were battling away when the issue was unfashionable.
Today’s players like Rio Ferdinand lacked this historical perspective when making their protest yesterday, but more than that they lacked an anti-racist perspective which values Black-led campaigns and does not subject them to national humiliation by a media revelling in a ‘black-on-black’ row. There was a complete lack of respect for campaigners who have dedicated their lives to making life considerably better for the benefit of the current generation. They often often did this for little or no money in contrast to the huge pay-packets of today’s top players. I have met campaigners like Lord Herman Ouseley, Brendan Batson and Paul Elliott, and can attest to their complete commitment and informed perspectives.
When Ferdinand was bouncing on top of car roofs in Leeds many Black former players and other campaigners were tirelessly to hammer away at the same messages year after year until football chiefs sat up and listened. Today they are listening. That we have to go further is a truism but to effectively slash the tyres of the vehicle that has got us this far is illogical. If Kick It Out have not been as strong as they could over recent controversies Black players should speak to them behind closed doors out of respect. Yesterday we saw a complete lack of respect for elder campaigners who have suffered more that the present generation and were brave enough to stand up and be counted.
We also saw the integrity of those campaigners questioned with the implication of Ferdinand’s protest being to effectively label them as choc-ices, sell-outs who were not representing the interests of Black players and who do not command their support. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those involved in Kick It Out have sacrificed much to get us where we are and continue to believe strongly in the cause. The sight of white players and managers supporting Kick It Out but a handful of Black players boycotting the campaign says everything about how far removed a handful of players are from the life experiences of those who have struggled against racism for decades for the benefit of all Black players today.
Far removed from the preening egos of multi-millionares, the world of grassroots non-league football shows that anti-racist campaigns do matter for all the right reasons. You won’t get prima donnas at clubs like Sutton United but what you will find is a genuine connection with the community. Where fans are not a captive audience to buy merchandise but rather part of a family and where anti-racist campaigns are respected and appreciated. Ferdinand should take a look at football at this level where values of honesty and humility shine through. He’d learn something.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway